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Murderer Agrees to Be DEA Informant, Serves 16-Month Sentence


February 1997

Cocaine trafficker Javier Cruz served only a 16-month sentence for the 1987 murder of Mark Garrett after going to work for DEA. Cruz negotiated a plea bargain for his murder charge, and drug charges that carry a mandatory life sentence have been suspended for over five years by working as an undercover informant for the DEA. The plea bargain was opposed by Garrett's family. The family said federal officials assured them that Cruz would spend much more time in prison on federal drug charges than on the murder charge, but five years and two arrests later, Cruz is still a free man (Jan Vertefeuille, "Did he get way with murder?" Roanoke Times, November 8, 1996, p. A1; Jan Vertefeuille, "Is debt to society paid?" Roanoke Times, November 9, 1996, p. A1).

On July 30, 1987 in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, Javier Cruz shot 25-year-old Mark Garrett in the back of the head during an argument and dumped his body on a back road. Cruz fled the state, and North Carolina declared him one of its most-dangerous fugitives. By 1989, Cruz was posing as a dairy farmer in Floyd County, Virginia named Luis Florez. A year later he opened a used-car dealership in Roanoke under the same name. In 1990, the DEA began investigating him for distributing hundreds of kilograms of cocaine for the Cali cartel in Colombia. In April 1991, authorities discovered that Florez was really Cruz, arrested him for Garrett's murder, and found $337,000 hidden in two of his cars. Cruz was soon indicted on drug trafficking charges.

After agreeing to become a DEA informant, Cruz spent 16 months in and out of the Salem-Roanoke County Jail. In August 1992, he pled guilty to the reduced charge of involuntary manslaughter in Garrett's murder and received a 3-year sentence. But with credit for time already served, Cruz was released after spending less than a week in a North Carolina prison. By May 1995, Cruz's was running his second wife's restaurant and nightclub in Roanoke County, called "Temptations," and living in a $288,000 house in Clearbrook, Virginia while working for the DEA. In September 1995, Cruz pled guilty in Roanoke federal court to the cocaine charges, but sentencing has been delayed. Although the charges he admitted to carry a mandatory life sentence, the government can reduce his sentence because of his "substantial assistance" to the DEA. Cruz said he hopes to receive probation.

Defendants released on bond are normally supervised by a probation officer, but Cruz is not on pretrialsupervision, according to Supervising U.S. Probation Officer Buddy Ross, whose office handles pretrial services. Ross also said a defendant's bond is usually revoked if the defendant is rearrested. Since Cruz began working for the DEA, he has been arrested at least twice -- on drug charges in Colombia in 1994 and on a rape charge in Roanoke County in 1995. U.S. District Judge James Turk said he was unaware of the arrests. The rape charge against Cruz was dropped on September 11, 1995, the same day that he pled guilty to the federal drug trafficking charges.

Members of Congress, including Rep. Sue Myrick (R-NC), Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), and Rep. Melvin Watt (D-NC), have asked the Justice Department if Cruz received inappropriate preferential treatment. "It is yet another example of the tremendous discretion the criminal justice system gives to law enforcement officials and prosecutors to pick and choose who to cooperate with and who to prosecute," said Watt. He said the system leads to discrimination and injustice based on race, class and other factors.

Mecklenburg County (NC) Assistant District Attorney Steve Ward, said the DEA did not pressure him to agree to the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter. He said he agreed to the plea bargain because he appreciated that Cruz's work as an informant could lead to "major" drug arrests; DEA was willing to bring Cruz back to North Carolina to resolve the murder case; and he would have had a difficult time disproving Cruz's claim that he killed Garrett in self defense (Jan Vertefeuille, "DEA: Did Cruz deals go too far?" Roanoke Times, November 26, 1997, p. A1).

Cruz's version of the killing is that Garrett was choking Letty Smith, Garrett's date, and that Cruz killed Garrett because he thought Smith was in imminent danger of being killed. Cruz, a native of Colombia, said he fled because a friend told him that no matter how the shooting occurred, he would get the death penalty because he was a foreigner. But according to a statement that Smith gave police the day after Garrett's murder, she was not in the van when Garrett was murdered. Smith said that Garrett was arguing with her and Cruz, and that after Garrett grabbed her by the neck, she jumped out of the van and began walking away. She said she then heard a gunshot, heard Garrett yell, "You're going to have to kill me," and then heard another shot (Jan Vertefeuille, "File contradicts account," Roanoke Times, January 20, 1997, p. A1).

DEA officials flew to Charlotte in December to meet with Garrett's family. Peter Gruden, who oversees the DEA regional office that includes Virginia, told the family that the DEA had nothing to do with Cruz's plea bargain. However, he did admit that the DEA needed the murder charge to be expedited so the agency could send Cruz to Colombia to work for the U.S. Government. A DEA official told the family that Cruz would be back in court in January, but the DEA would not confirm that (Jan Vertefeuille, "Cruz goes back to court," Roanoke Times, January 21, 1997, p. A1).

After stories about Cruz appeared in the Roanoke Times in November 1996, Cruz and his family left Roanoke county, according to the DEA.